Editor's note: This is based on Wilkerson's March 15 presentation in the Great Decision series sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
North Korea has been back in the news recently. From the alleged execution of North Korean Army chief Ri Yong-gil; to the launching of ballistic missiles; to the expulsion of south Korean workers and managers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex — site of the only significant combined economic enterprise involving the two Koreas — there have been multiple news items describing an increasingly antagonistic relationship on the Korean Peninsula.
To add salt to existing wounds, the public announcement by South Korea and the U.S. of their decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to the southern part of the Peninsula not only roused North Korea to vehement protest, but is expected to ignite a controversy amongst South Koreans over procedural issues in the decision-making process, the selection of a site, the sharing of costs and, with China at least, the potential for destabilization of the region.
But all this current bustle of activity camouflages the realities of this now half-century-plus division of the two Koreas. And the most fundamental reality it obscures is that the continued presence of U.S. forces on the Peninsula post-Cold War is the principal reason North Korea has produced nuclear weapons, has become more bellicose than ever, and will not even heed its main state supporter, China, in the latter's attempts to calm the waters a bit. Moreover, if it were not for the U.S. troop presence, unification of the two Koreas might be much further along despite China's angst at having 70-plus million hard-working and democratic Koreans on its border instead of a basket-case of a dictator-state that until recently could barely feed it population.
It is absolutely essential, then, that to begin a meaningful analysis of where the Peninsula is headed in the next decade or two, one begin not with either of the Koreas but with the U.S. Likewise for the northeast Asia region as a whole, because the U.S. desire to preserve the status quo — in history, the most potent force in any aging empire's overall outlook — will be the driver of events in the region for some time to come. Moreover, U.S. defense contractors' profit — vividly demonstrated by the proposed THAAD deployment — has become something more than an augmentation to strategic security. From NATO's expansion into the very face of Russia in order to provide U.S., British and French defense contractors more sales, to the remarkable consumption of cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions in Syria and Iraq, increasingly the U.S. promotes or makes war at least in part for defense contractor profit.
Pyongyang, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing all understand these realities, albeit to varying degrees of comprehension and from very different perspectives. What such realization has meant for them thus far is a more fearful—and thus belligerent — North Korea, a Japan increasingly seeking its own security apparatus to first augment and then possibly replace the U.S. security umbrella, a South Korea caught in the middle and unsure which way to turn, and a China more and more concerned about its ability to concentrate on a faltering economy while it increasingly empowers its military instrument in case the U.S. lashes out or, indeed, China goes one step too far.
In this situation, Seoul can try strategic patience. It dare not take a chance and ask the U.S. to leave, nor reach out too welcomingly to its northern antagonist, nor sidle up to Beijing "as close as lips to teeth." None of these situations seems strategically tenable to South Korea's decision-makers. Thus, Seoul's security policy, for the moment, can best be described as sticking to "the devil it knows" and responding tactically to events as they unfold.
With respect to tactics, it is tempting to describe Pyongyang's security policy similarly. Isolated, more sanctioned than any country on earth—and about to be even more so — universally despised, and surrounded by U.S. and its allies' military power every hour of every day, it can only endure — and try occasionally to disconcert the opposing power structure by unexpected, belligerent actions. Frankly too, the Kim dynasty at long last seems to be faltering a bit — perhaps a potentially volatile element in everyone's calculations.
Tokyo, as was said, is hedging its bets as it finds unacceptable Beijing's characterization of Japan as the despised "other" in China's new nationalistic foreign policy — but it cannot get too close to Seoul (more for historical reasons than purely strategic ones) — and as it moves slowly away from U.S. conventional power by unencumbering its own.
Meanwhile, Beijing plays a risky hand in the South China Sea while its civilian leadership holds off an ever-richer military establishment that wants to challenge U.S. military power; simultaneously, it slowly and cautiously pursues economic policies aimed at unseating the dollar, making as much of the world as it can dependent upon its largesse, and cornering as much as possible of the energy it needs from all the producers in its now quite widespread commercial orbit.
Declining powers, rising powers, with middling powers entrapped by the machinations of both—that is a succinct description of the world today, of Northeast Asia in particular, and from such a contesting of power one cannot predict with any certainty individual or overall outcomes.
Where in this the two Koreas will wind up is difficult to predict, but realizing the realties is a good start.
Lawrence Wilkerson is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. He was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell in the first George W. Bush administration.